Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Andrew Zimmerman's "Alabama in Africa"

Andrew Zimmerman is associate professor of history at George Washington University. He is the author of Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South, and reported the following:
The revolutionary lives of Polish seasonal migrant laborers in Germany is the topic of page 99 of Alabama in Africa and it does, I think, pass Ford’s test. By the 1890s, thousands of young Polish men and women traveled each year to do the backbreaking work of sugarbeet cultivation in the fields of German landowners. Even as these workers found themselves exploited and oppressed by their would-be masters, they also became mobile and cosmopolitan individuals who challenged prevailing social hierarchies in Germany and in Poland. German employers preferred to hire female fieldworkers, since they regarded these young women as more diligent and less demanding than their male counterparts. In doing so, employers unintentionally empowered these women to challenge patriarchal structures in the workplace, the household, and the political sphere. Alabama in Africa addresses the similarly revolutionary potentials of African American cotton growers, African palm oil harvesters, and Polish sugarbeet workers, remaining careful to not romanticize the real forms of oppression faced by these diverse groups of working men and women. The book also analyzes the efforts of economic and political elites and mainstream social scientists to capture these workers, checking their freedom even while enjoying the fruits of their labor. Equally important to its analysis are the efforts of revolutionary activists, from the German Social Democratic Party, discussed on p. 99, to the American Wobblies, to Communist International, to learn from, and catch up with, the spontaneous movements of these workers. I wrote Alabama in Africa as an experiment in writing a history outside the framework of national boundaries, but also while thinking about the situation of workers in the world today, whose mobility remains both necessary and inimical to the structures of wealth and power that allow a small ruling class to live at the expense of the world’s majorities.
Read an excerpt from Alabama in Africa, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue